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Flushing out energy-wasters

The heartbreaking spectacle of civil servants stumbling around in the darkness with their trousers around their ankles has been evoked by a news story from Birmingham.

Aiming to save energy – and presumably to cut down on lazy staff taking long loo breaks – those running the West Midlands government offices have installed a timer to the building’s lavatory lights. After 10 minutes, workers who are idling their day away in a cubicle will find themselves plunged into darkness.

Naturally there has been an uproar. “Humiliating and degrading,” one member of staff has sobbed. “Can you imagine the indignity of being in a cubicle letting nature take its course, when suddenly the lights go out and you have to fumble in the dark?” The whole thing was “undignified and unsafe”.

No wonder George Osborne believes that efficiency savings are needed in the public sector. Even for civil servants, going to the lavatory should be a relatively straightforward business. If they really need 10 minutes to “let nature take its course”, then a bit of humiliation and degradation is richly deserved.

Doubtless, health and safety experts will end this sensible move. An overpaid civil servant, blundering around in a dark cubicle, might hit his head on a cistern, they will argue. There could be countless lavatory-paper-related incidents. Or, emerging with his jacket tucked into his trousers, a member of staff might experience the kind of emotional trauma which will lead straight to an industrial tribunal.

Yet it sounds like a sensible idea to me. Energy-saving demands sacrifices. Civil servants, completing their intimate routines against the clock, will be setting an example to us all.

Independent, Wednesday, 31 March 2010